How I Increased My Self Confidence By Saying "I Don't Know"

Especially in the corporate context, people do see through those who aim to appear knowledgeable without apparent concern for becoming knowledgeable.
Publish date:
May 11, 2015
work, personal growth, friends, self confidence

At some point during my childhood I discerned that it was better to be in on the things my peers were talking about than not. I developed the habit of rolling with both pop culture and academic references I didn't really get and even nodding or, "mhmm-ing" when someone asked, "So, you know such-and-such?" When I had no clue at all what they hell they were talking about it felt so much easier to say, "Yup," than to say, "Nope. Never heard of it."

Some of my unwillingness to reveal ignorance of any type came from the rigorous and highly competitive academic environment I found myself in from kindergarten through my senior year of high school. It was then that intellect became irrevocably coiled with identity for me. I always felt behind on the curve on literature, geography and other subjects that I didn't have exposure to at home. My parents were younger than my friends' and came from a different cultural context. My mom put me on to Mariah Carey and The Baby-Sitters Club, not The Beatles and A Tale of Two Cities.

Regardless of the particular context that motivated me to nod along with the things I didn't get, I imagine that many people struggle with being the very last one to hear that song, or see that movie, or read that book. We don't want to appear out of the loop, or worse, unintelligent. It's a latent insecurity that may be so ubiquitous that we don't give it much thought.

The habit of glossing over things I didn't know followed me right into adulthood. Despite a voracious appetite for learning in college classrooms and privately, curled up with a book while all of my dorm-mates were out, I still couldn't get comfortable with copping to not being familiar with certain things when they came up in conversation. Even as I pictured myself one day becoming a college professor and happily filling young minds with new information, I regarded myself as somewhat of a failure for not having an innate knowledge of, well, everything.

Most of the time I could pass as knowing about something when I didn't. It's rare that someone stops mid-conversation to test your knowledge of a reference, making it easy to see the conversation through without getting caught. This sounds like the language of dishonesty, because it is. While this might fall under the "white lie" or "minor fib" categories, it is a form of insincerity that creates social boundaries and keeps us out of the loop on the things we wish we knew. And while not many conversations are derailed by someone who wants proof of what you know, we often suspect it when someone else is feigning knowledge of something. There seems to be some tacit agreement that these moments are to be passed over because we all do it, at one point or another.

I got some perspective in conversation with a group of friends, chatting about a piece of classic literature that I was less than familiar with when someone spoke up: "I've never read it." It was such a simple phrase and yet it struck me as brave. I didn't immediately think less of this person, as I imagined someone would of me should I ever admit ignorance. In fact, I respected the casual way she copped to not being familiar with a certain book. She made it look easy and I admired the self-confidence she exhibited. Though Plato had already told me via Socrates that the wisest person is the one who admits that she knows nothing, it was a more effective lesson coming from a young woman just like me, but with a little more chutzpah.

I didn't change overnight. Going with a conversation is so much easier than saying, "Wait, can you fill me in on 'x.'" But eventually, I got sick of hiding behind my facade. Why should anyone be ashamed not to know something? Who of us is even the slightest bit aware of everything there is to know? These questions feel so obvious to me now, but there remains an unspoken basis for so many of us who associate shame with the slightest bit of ignorance.

Here and there I would flip my usual script and quietly say I wasn't familiar with something. Beginning to open up took a little bit of ego building (I'm more than whatever people may perceive me as) and ego deconstruction (no one actually thinks that I just happen to know everything). Once I got comfortable with exposing what I didn't know, I realized what a burden it had been to be dishonest in the past. The pang of stress that coursed through me while I wondered if I would be caught would often distract me from the next few lines of conversation. How much had I missed pretending that I hadn't missed anything? "I don't know," gave me the freedom to unabashedly be myself and to grow as a person every time a peer taught me something new.

At work I saw incredible gains. I wasn't, as I feared I would be, cast as the lady who doesn't know. I became the lady who wants to know. I asked more questions and got more of the answers I needed to be effective in my job. When I didn't have an immediate answer to a question, I said so, giving me more time to find the valuable bit of information I needed to provide. When I did answer a question I was received as a credible source, because people knew that if I hadn't known the answer I would have said, "I don't know," not rattled on for minutes with semi-related bullshit. Especially in the corporate context, though it may not be acknowledged outright, people do see through those who aim to appear knowledgeable without apparent concern for becoming knowledgeable.

Whether at work or just hanging out with friends, I've found that most people welcome the opportunity to share something that's new to me. I count a favorite artist, two kinds of European candy, and a French director I can't get enough of among the things I've only now become aware of because I wasn't afraid to ask about them. There will always be the person who responds with a flabbergasted, "Really?!" when they find out that you have never listened to Björk or read Sartre or don't know the story behind Ariana Grande's permanent hairstyle. Rather than shrink down into myself in those moments, I can stand tall and forgive their unintended offense. It wouldn't surprise me if that person was on some level more astonished by admission than my ignorance.

If someone forms a negative opinion of me based on what I don't know and my willingness to admit as much, that's his or her problem, not mine. There's a good chance that if this person thinks my admission is embarrassing that they would be too embarrassed to admit what they don't know. It's sad to think that are going through life learning only in secret and having to appear that they know everything about everything in every conversation. Imagine what they'll never know that they don't know.